Take the short Astrobiology Quiz! What was the hardest question?

Take the short Astrobiology Quiz!

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What was the hardest question?

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It will be Q#7: "Planets around a binary star system is not suitable for development of intelligent life because the planets....?" for a poor biologist as myself! Could one of you explain the answer? (I know which one is the correct answer now, I won't tell here, no spoilers allowed!) :)

I am sure someone else can explain this in better terms than I can but here goes: in a single star system like our own all the planets revolve around a central point- the center of the sun. Once the system gets going, all the planets have distanced themselves from each other so they can dance around the sun in their orbits and not interfere with each other too much. Other heavenly bodies like comets and asteroids move predictably, too. Theory goes that intelligent life requires time to develop, and that's possible here.
Now think about a binary star system with one star larger than the other. The little star doesn't simply revolve around the big one, rather they circle each other in a bit of a clumsy dance, so the system's center of gravity is always shifting. The Planets orbiting binary stars are constantly being pulled in a different direction, and can't maintain a decent distance between each other, so collisions between planets, comets, asteroids, etc are common. It's a planetary mosh pit. Unfortunately for life, a collision means death in the form of vaporized oceans, loss of atmosphere, even re-melting the planet. It isn't easy to develop advanced life when the planet is repeatedly sterilized and you are back to creating the first life form again and again.

That's what I guessed

Thank goodness for multiple choice because I couldn't remember the scientist's name in #3. I remember the other two guys and their accomplishments so I could rule them out.

Woooh 100%. I can now officially call myself an astrobiologist!

Well, I actually have some problems with the quiz questions. Perhaps we
can write a better version and host it on SAGAN itself ;-)

For example, the word 'Earth' should have a capital E ;-)

Q1: I would suggest that life on Earth is based on hydrogen
(think about the number of atoms of H compared to the rest). Much of
biochemistry is also controlled by the movement of hydrogen atoms or the
manipulation of C-H or O-H bonds.

Q7: I understand that a planet was reported last year in
the AlphaCen system (result is being confirmed by Hubble Observations).
If the planet does exist, it has probably been around Alpha Cen for ~4.5
billion years (about the same as the age of the Sun). Plenty of time to
give life on this planet to originate and evolve?

Indeed both Q6 and Q7 assume that given enough time and environmental
conditions, intelligent life is a likely outcome of life's origin and
evolution. As Earth history has shown this is not a good assumption
(Notice how with the same amount of time and availability of
environments that our species had access to, we don't see Kangaroos
building radio telescopes or Penguins using iPhones!)

Q5. Perhaps could be better rephrased as "what is the most likely place to find Earth-like life". Also, in recent years, place like Enceladus, Europa and Titan have been put forward as better candidates for life than Mars.

Q2. Aren't there proteins like ribosomes (which have critical bits made
of RNA) also transferred to the next generation (independent of the DNA
material) and so couldn't one say they too transfer genetic information. BTW aren't all enzymes also proteins?



Hmm... I am already becoming a grumpy old astrobiologist !!!

I don't think using an iPhone is a sign of intelligence ;-P
I agree that most of these questions feel more like Canon (and Columbus discovered America) than the forefront of complex science.

#6 and #7 ! Although I got them right by excluding the most unlikely answers. I was indeed thinking that there exist stable orbits in binary system, am I wrong? What about the possibility of a planet orbiting a single star in a wide binary system? And what is wrong with a small star? Is it the activity (X-ray flares etc.) that causes problems? Someone has to enlighten us!

Hmmm, there are a lot of problems with this quiz.

Q1:  Surely the answer sought by the questioner is "carbon", but life on Earth requires far more than just carbon for existence.  Perhaps the wording of that question could be changed to something like "which element is most crucial for building the framework of the biological molecules utilized by life as we know it"

Q5:  This seems more like a "what is my favorite astrobiological target" question than anything.  What about Europa and other icy moons or Titan?  There's probably plenty of arguments to be had for more than just one target being the "most likely" place to find extant life.

Q6:  Saying such a planet cannot harbor life is pretty much making some gigantic (and probably false) assumptions about the nature of life and, more importantly, habitability.  The "life zone" is not a phrase that we should get too carried away with.  

Q7:  Though I think we'd all probably agree about the answer here, this question is also pretty presumptuous.  After all "the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but queerer than we can imagine".

Q8:  Again, not a big fan of that phrase "life zone".  It's definitely not a phrase I would use in my writing or speaking.  I like "Goldilocks Zone", or heck even "Liquid Water Zone" or something like that makes sense, but who's to say life can't originate and evolve outside of this "life zone" (as would be the case for Europa or Titan)?

I'd say on the whole this quiz was super easy, but also pretty misleading.  I would not want young students to think that the answers to this quiz are by any means definitive.

 

I'm not sure about the hardest, but Q. #7 was perhaps the most ambiguous -- as a scientist, I'd appreciate more specificity! ;-)

Wow! All excellent comments! Hmmm, perhaps we could do a better job with developing an Astrobiology Quiz? I place the one of this week's DoW here available for edit. How would you rephrase it? Let's shoot for 20 questions? What do you think?

Cool.  I've made some edits, added bullets for all 20 questions, and wrote two new questions.  Let's see where this goes.  

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